North Korea just exploded its second nuclear device, estimated to equal the bomb dropped by the United States on Nagasaki. It was in violation of a bevy of United Nations' resolutions. It defied a decade of warnings by the United States and the strong advice of China. Every major power in the world hurled verbal thunderbolts at the offenders. The major powers, then, unsheathed their ultimate weapon—an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to warn Pyongyang’s leaders that they had done a bad thing.
The Obama policy is a good one: Speak seriously, carry a big stick, but don’t use it unless necessary—and let China take the lead for the moment.
But this time, they issued no foolish promises to ratchet up economic sanctions against that already totally impoverished country. And this time, the United States refrained from making the direst of unkeepable threats.
It seems that the major powers of the world and of Asia, finally, have learned the long obvious central lesson from decades of utterly failing to tame the most isolated and bizarre regime on the globe: Don’t make threats that won’t work or you can’t keep because your failure will mean loss of credibility and power.
To counter past transgressions, Washington and its friends would press for more economic sanctions, sometimes getting support, but mostly being thwarted by China. Beijing, the supplier of essential food and fuel to North Korea, was not about to use its leverage and stop this commerce. Doing so would risk political and economic upheaval in an already impoverished country that could tumble into China itself. So, this time, the other major powers did not foolishly promise what they could not deliver without China. Sensibly, they merely made plain that Pyongyang could not receive aid from abroad and escape its poverty if it continued to follow this bellicose course.
On past occasions, Washington would threaten the North with mayhem that sounded like the following: “We won’t tolerate this.” “This is unacceptable.” “We will make the most serious responses to your most dangerous acts.” Then, in the full flush of this bombast, George W. Bush, in particular, would do virtually nothing. Even in the early days of the Obama administration, the same right wing that inspired idle and self-destructive threats during the Bush administration pushed Obama into making similarly idle threats in the face of a North Korean long-range missile test.
This time, President Obama remained somewhat bombastic in describing the mess caused by the nuclear test, but was quite vague about remedies. “North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” he said, “pose a grave threat to the peace and security of the world, and I strongly condemn their reckless action.” He added that “The United States and the international community must take action in response.”
“Reckless,” indeed, and “condemn” them, to be sure, but avoid Bush’s recklessness and, instead, speak vaguely about taking “action.” Could it be that after a long interval, an American president finally rediscovered common sense? Bravo, Obama!
Of course, the United States could utterly destroy North Korea at any time with an all-out air and missile attack, and that would be the end of the North Korea threat forever. There’s only one problem—and those who have devoted decades to urging such an American attack know this as well as I do—the South Koreans are absolutely opposed to the United States doing this. Why? Because while it would take us about three hours to make rubble of the North, the South would be destroyed, as well, or at least Seoul and its environs, which means the destruction of South Korea’s main population center and economy. The North has more than 10,000 artillery pieces and rockets poised on the DMZ that could hit Seoul within minutes. Washington would end up destroying the South in order to protect it.
Thus, putting aside the blue smoke rhetoric of American politics, here’s the underlying strategic reality understood by virtually every American military expert who is not on meds: First, the United States can’t attack the North because of the South. And second, the North isn’t going to attack anybody because it would swiftly and irrevocably be blown into kingdom come. That would mean no more porn flicks for the notoriously addicted Kim Jong Il, the “Dear Leader” of the North.
That porn addiction is one of the few things about the so-to-speak internal politics of Pyongyang known to Western or Eastern intelligence. Despite the best efforts of many intelligence agencies, little is known with confidence about this country that has forever shut itself off from the world and the world from it.
We have some reason to believe there is a succession crisis or process under way there. Kim is thought to have suffered a stroke some months back and to have heart troubles. He is supposed to want one of his sons to continue the family tradition and run the country. All his sons are young, inexperienced, and untried. The North Korean military is said to be the force behind the throne now. It is said to be monolithic in its views, though no institution has ever been monolithic. And the best intelligence minds around speculate that Kim is firing off all those missiles and exploding the nukes to build up his prestige for the succession fight.
Other intelligence geniuses say he’s doing it because he wants to fire up the people’s nationalism in the face of their dire poverty and support Kim’s resistance to resuming negotiations with the major powers. Yet other geniuses argue the opposite and insist the tests are a ploy to gain popular support so that he can negotiate with Washington and the other major powers. Go figure.
My mother taught me an invaluable lesson when confronted with a situation that’s very delicate and possibly dangerous and where we really don't know what's going on: “Don’t mix in,” she intoned. As long as Pyongyang sees clearly that the United States will respond instantly and most harshly to any use or serious threat of force, “don’t mix in” is a good adage. It’s what the Obama team says it's thinking, while it waits for North Korean internal politics and Chinese advice to bring Pyongyang back to the long-vacated negotiating table.
The Obama policy is a good one: Speak seriously, carry a big stick, but don’t use it unless necessary—and let China take the lead for the moment. And that’s precisely what Beijing did on Monday, when its Foreign Ministry issued a statement that “demanded” Pyongyang return to the six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. In time, when Pyongyang sees that its now-familiar war dance does not produce apoplexy in Washington (which it equates with weakness), it will be back to the bargaining table. These talks have been the diplomatic equivalent of heart surgery without anesthesia, but they sure beat idle and unidle threats on the Korean peninsula.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.